Stevan Ridley has emerged as a top running back in his second pro season. He's not the only Patriots rusher Texans coach Gary Kubiak has to worry about.
The revived New England ground game, with Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden as backups, has brought balance to an offense that relied more heavily on quarterback Tom Brady in recent years.
Ridley, in his second pro season, is third in the AFC with 1,010 yards rushing going into Monday night's game between the Texans (11-1), who have the best record in the AFC and have clinched a playoff berth, and the Patriots (9-3), who have locked up the AFC East title.
"He's a heck of a player," Kubiak said. "They've had a few different backs back there. It's what they do. It's almost like anybody they put back there is successful. They play young guys. Tom has got them in the right play all the time. They're not only running the ball well, but those backs out of the backfield catch the ball extremely well."
Vereen has rushed for just 173 yards and three touchdowns but has scored on an 83-yard pass play. Bolden, a rookie who returns Monday night after sitting out a four-game suspension for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances, is second on the team with 234 yards rushing and two touchdowns.
"They're very capable of running the ball very well," Kubiak said.
And, of course, outstanding throwing it.
Brady is having his usual strong season with 25 touchdown passes and just four interceptions, and wide receiver Wes Welker leads the NFL with 92 receptions.
That pairing could be a real problem for Houston without cornerback Brice McCain, who had surgery on his left foot on Monday. Brandon Harris, a second-year pro, will replace him despite having played in just four games this season.
"Welker has 92 catches and I don't think Brandon has 29 plays," Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "It's a challenge, certainly. We expect him to step up and play. We're going to try to help him in certain areas, but it's going to be one-on-one some. It's going to be one-on-one pass rush with our guys to put pressure on the guy and it's going to be one-on-one for our guys to cover them sometimes. That's just how it is."
Balance also is a strong point for the Texans with Arian Foster, the AFC's leading rusher with 1,102 yards, and Andre Johnson, seventh in the NFL with 74 catches.
"He's a great player," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of Johnson, a 10-year veteran. "He's done it for a long time. He puts up big numbers every year and people are keying on him. They're looking for him and he keeps producing. He's a hard guy to cover."
And then there's Foster, the NFL leader with 15 touchdowns.
The Texans disguise their plays well and make effective use of play action, which requires defenders to be well disciplined.
"Gary does a good job, scheme-wise, of balancing everything out — the running game, the passing game, play-actions, dropbacks, complementary routes, complementary runs — everything kind of ties together," Belichick said.
The Patriots and the Texans are the only two offenses ranked in the top 10 in yards rushing and passing.
"If you're stopping one thing, then you're probably light on something else and it won't take them too long to find that and exploit it," Belichick said. Johnson "is definitely open on a few plays where it wouldn't matter who the receiver is, the guy is wide open and is going to make a big play. But there are also a lot of plays that he makes on his own."
Fortunately for the Patriots, their weak pass defense has improved in recent weeks.
The acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib, who has played the past three games for the Patriots, from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has allowed Belichick to start Devin McCourty at safety rather than his usual cornerback spot, and he's solidified the secondary.
McCourty's interception in the end zone in the final minute secured the Patriots 37-31 win over the Buffalo Bills on Nov. 11. In their next game, cornerbacks Talib and Alfonzo Dennard returned interceptions for touchdowns in a 59-24 rout of the Indianapolis Colts.
"They're a very physical, stout group," Texans quarterback Matt Schaub said. "They understand their scheme well, a lot of veteran guys that have played a lot of football in that group. They can rush the passer. They can stop the run. They can do a little bit of everything. It's a group that we really have to be on top of our game plan, on top of our stuff and play good road football."
The Texans have done that better than any team this season. At 6-0, they're the only team with a perfect road record.
But the Patriots haven't lost a regular-season game in December since Dec. 22, 2002.
"The better you play, the better your homefield advantage is because the more the crowd is into it," Brady said. "I think the mark of our teams over the years has been we've improved as the season has gone along. December is the last month to really improve.
"Coach puts pressure on us in practice every day to improve, to get better and not to make the same mistakes (and) to learn from our mistakes. I think we as a team have responded to that and played well. That's what's important this time of the year: to not make the same mistakes we were making in September and to play our best football. This will be a great week to see if we can accomplish that."
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